Shuttle soars to space station after launch delays

Wed Jul 15, 2009 7:02pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. space shuttle Endeavour blasted off from its seaside launch pad on Wednesday, ending a month of delays to a mission intended to complete construction of Japan's Kibo research laboratory at the International Space Station.

On its sixth launch attempt, NASA's 127th space shuttle mission began at 6:03 p.m. (2203 GMT) when Endeavour's twin solid-fuel booster rockets ignited, sending the 4.5 million pound (2.04 million-kg) spaceship into the steamy Florida sky.

"The weather is finally cooperating, so it is now time to fly," launch director Pete Nickolenko radioed to the crew shortly before liftoff. "Persistence pays off. Good luck and god speed."

Riding atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the shuttle soared over the Atlantic Ocean en route to an orbital rendezvous with the space station on Friday 220 miles above Earth.

Two launch attempts last month were scuttled by hydrogen fuel leaks. A third attempt on Saturday ended when NASA ordered checks of the shuttle's electrical systems following a spate of lightning strikes, and Sunday and Monday launch attempts were canceled due to poor weather.

NASA is trying to complete construction of the $100 billion outpost, a project of 16 nations, by September 30, 2010, so it can retire the shuttle fleet and ramp up development of replacement ships that can journey to the moon and other destinations farther from Earth.

Endeavour is carrying a Japanese-built platform to be mounted on the front of the $2.4 billion Kibo complex to hold science experiments that need to be exposed to the open environment of space.

Experiments on the platform can be installed and retrieved remotely with a robotic arm, eliminating the need for time-consuming and potentially risky spacewalks by station crewmembers. The first two sections of Kibo were attached to the station in 2008.   Continued...

<p>The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Joe Skipper</p>